There is more to Thailand than Bangkok and Phuket, a quick rundown of activities and recommendations for three other cities on the Thai tourist trail; Ayutthaya, Chiang Mai and Kanchanaburi.
Ayutthaya is approximately 85km North from Bangkok and is accessible by train, bus or…by taxi. We splashed out the equivalent of £10 for the convenience of a chauffeur-driven experience, rather than the £1.50 train ticket. Clearly, some work was still to be done on our idea of ‘roughing’ it!
The city, situated in the central plains of Thailand, was the former capital of this region and is deliberately based on the temples in Angkor Watt, Cambodia. The ancient temple ruins are spectacular and date back to Uthong Dynasty (early 13th century). As the jungle has reclaimed the palaces and temples that humans once occupied, walking around them felt like something out of The Jungle Book, particularly the home of King Louis’ troop of mischievous monkeys!
The ruins are expansive with statues of Buddha everywhere you look – even in the trees. One of the largest temples once held sacred religious artefacts that had survived Burmese army invasions, grave robbers and the relentless monsoon weather for centuries, but were sadly stolen only several years ago. Regardless, there is much still to see, later that day we took a longboat ride on the Chao Phraya River that encompassed a number of even larger temple ruin stops. The best of which was without a doubt a ‘mini’ Angkor Wat – the centrepiece of the ruins here.
The following morning we hired bikes from our hotel, Prom Tong Mansion, taking a 3km ride out to the Royal Elephant Kraal to see baby elephants. However, when we arrived it was clear that it did not live up to the eco-tourism credentials it had presented online – the adult elephants were in chains, had sores on their feet and were held in small concrete pens. The babies could run around as they pleased, which lead to one of the more boisterous ones taking a charge stepping on my foot! Escaping with a small scratch and a bruise to boot, they were undoubtedly very cute, but I was relieved that where we had chosen to volunteer at which allows for free roaming in an expansive natural habitat. (Read Elephant Nature Park, One Week Volunteering).
For supper, we headed to the city’s famous and popular night market, Hua Ro, eating a bowl of pork noodles cooked to order. With the price being less than 50p, the meal was even tastier! If you wanted to try something more ‘exotic’ other dishes on the vendors’ menus included fried worms and chicken’s heads….but each to their own!
After an eventful 12-hour train ride north (Took a Midnight Train), we arrived in Chiang Mai, the culinary centre of Thailand. Smaller and less hectic than Bangkok, Chiang Mai still offers visitors lots to see and do and some great nightlight for those that seek it out – Reggae Bar is a firm favourite. We stayed at the Ban Hannibah guesthouse for £14 per night for a double private room with ensuite.
For orientation, we spent the morning on a 23km bike ride with Colours of Chiang Mai, exploring the stunning countryside outside the city walls over 4-5hours. Our guide, a Buddhist expat, imparted the core principles and teachings of Budda as we toured the larger local temples. A highlight was a stop at a local primary school, where the children were dressed in traditional Thai attire, as they do every Friday. In Thailand, the government distributes money to schools, who then distribute it to children’s parents, to encourage attendance and to help feed and clothe the children – a well thought-out system that allows everyone a free education until the age of 15. Getting peckish, the tour also provided us with the opportunity to indulge in some local delicacies; grasshoppers. For those not quite ready to chomp on insects, we also made a stop at the local bakery and sweet factory. The tour wasn’t expensive and I would really recommend it if you are interested to see some local history and what living here is really like.
Getting a taste of Thai cuisine, we enrolled in Siam Rice Cookery School the next day, who trained and fed us over 7 courses – encompassing spring rolls, green, red and massaman Thai curries, salads, Pad Thai and dessert. Quick tip – don’t eat before you come! You’ll also not need any dinner reservations for that night, there is plenty to take home in doggy bags! Well worth the price for the trip to the local market, masterclass culinary lesson and all the food you get to eat, if you are going to do a cooking class – this city, the home of Thai cuisine is the best place for it.
On our final day, in the city we took a trip up the Doi Suthep mountain that overlooks the city and hosts a remote temple, Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep. The temple itself sits at the top of 300 steps. After a tiring climb in the humid conditions, are greeted with panoramic views over Chiang Mai – making it well worth the effort.
Roughly 2 hours train west of Bangkok and close to the border with Myanmar/ Burma lies the city of Kanchanaburi, made famous due to the large river that runs through it, the Kwai.
It is a beautiful place, but one with a dark and sad recent history. While it might not be on every tourist’s must-see list, walking the bridge that inspired the film goes hand in hand with a visit to the Jeath War Museum to learn the story of thousands of prisoners of war (PoWs) were forced to build the bridge, under the brutal Japanese forces. As a consequence of tropical disease, malnutrition and back-breaking labour, over 100,000 people died (Asian workers included) constructing the Thai-Burma Railway, which encompasses the bridge. The Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, one of three the small town has, holds thousands of mostly unmarked PoW graves.
The following afternoon, we decided to visit the now infamous Tiger Temple. It was a hard choice for both Sam and I, as after ENP we were acutely aware of the relationship of the abuse of animals for the tourist dollar. However, Lek, ENP’s founder, had told us to visit such places and find out just how animals in Thailand are being treated.
The temple, run by Buddhist monks, was given its first tiger cub several decades ago when local villagers found it without a mother. Since then, the temple has grown as more orphaned cubs were donated to the temple and the monks were able to teach the tigers from a young age how to interact with humans and be domesticated. Or so the story goes…
The tigers were chained by a collar while they are on show to the general public who were encouraged by staff to go up and stroke them. We were promised that the animals were not drugged and that there was a program to release some back into the wild, but after allegations that the Temple was using the tigers to breed and sell body parts to the Chinese medicine market, it was thankfully closed down in 2016. There are some rumours that the Temple will reopen and I would argue there is now really no more evidence needed that what happened here is in the least exploitative to the tigers and at most, extreme animal cruelty. As breathtaking as it was to get up close to Asia’s apex predator, it wasn’t worth it to see these great animals in chains.
On our final day, we visited Erawan National Park and climbed the 1500m to the seven-tiered waterfall, said to resemble the head of a Hindu elephant god. The falls were awe-inspiring, particularly the seventh and most difficult to reach. Whilst we had been told not to go swimming due to heavy rains the previous day, we just had to have a little paddle in the mythical water, reputed to have healing powers. Whilst I’m not sure we were healed, the park was stunning and my favourite activity for this stop.